Back in August I wrote that the Premier League’s blocking of the Newcastle takeover was arbitrary, cruel and inconsistent, given they’d already let another sovereign wealth fund belonging to a country with a questionable human rights record buy Manchester City over a decade earlier. What we know now that we didn’t then was why the proposed takeover was stalling. It wasn’t the Premier League’s concern with optics at allowing one of the most barbaric regimes around to enter their fraternity, but a preoccupation with protecting and enhancing the league’s revenues. Of course. A long standing disagreement between Qatari owned beIN Sports and Saudi Arabia, who were illegally streaming beIN’s coverage of Premier League matches in Saudi Arabia, was finally settled and the takeover ratified shortly afterwards. To clarify, beIN currently pays the Premier League $500m for those rights.
A more palatable justification, wrapped in legalese, for ratifying the deal was offered – the purchasing company, Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, is operated independently, and not on behalf, of the Saudi royal family, despite the king in waiting being its chairman and defacto ruler of the country. Nobody can blame the company that now owns Newcastle United for the human rights abuses of the country, but nobody with any semblance of integrity would parse them as separate entities.
Given the nature of mainstream football fandom in 2021, a better question might be why the Premier League even bothered to justify it at all.
The reaction to the takeover – a mixture of petty jealousy (partly masquerading a sense of helplessness) that another club was receiving this ill-gotten wealth, and ambivalence to the inadequate regulations that allowed yet another football club to be sold to the highest bidder with scant regard for the sporting, moral and political consequences, said much about the state of British society, culture and its engagement in politics, and none of it is good.
Whataboutery was rife, always the first reserve of the ideologically bankrupt simpleton. You know how it goes: the UK sells arms to Saudi Arabia. For Saudi Arabia’s decimation of Yemen read UK involvement in the upending of Iraq and Afghanistan and their subsequent desertion of ensuring democracy lasts in either. This disingenuous piety doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; women in Saudi Arabia aren’t treated as equal citizens, there is no freedom of the press, homosexuality is illegal, conversion therapy is common, journalists are murdered, people are beheaded, the state seizes the assets of certain wealthy individuals (yeah, you Tory fucks, they’d come for you too), torture is widespread, migrant workers are essentially slaves, and the barbaric sharia law is enforced. The difference between our freedoms and their oppressions is lost on so many because in the UK you’re free to ignore theirs if you choose.
Then there’s Gary Neville’s stupendously delusional argument that allowing Saudi Arabia, and other countries with questionable human rights records, to invest in the Premier League will lead to greater scrutiny on their mis-deeds and shame them into changing their laws and mores at home. It’s a wilful projection that forgets people tend to believe what suits them, political engagement and awareness is in decline or is consigned to social media echo-chambers, perception is reality, and people in power are often ruthless about maintaining it.
Saudi Arabia invested in Newcastle United because they knew whatever opinions the British masses hold of how they run their country become irrelevant in the thrall of football’s hyperspecific form of populist escapism. The Premier League confirmed that by ratifying the takeover. The Premier League were banking that the culture would be more concerned with how the new owners will run Newcastle United than how they choose to run their country. And they’re right. While some debated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, most chose to speculate how much longer Steve Bruce would last (answer – not long), who would replace him and how soon Newcastle would be challenging the Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea for Champions League qualification and league titles (right now, no time soon). The Saudi royalty have the patience and money that the masses with shortening attention spans do not. All they need to do is wait, most of the remaining dissenting herd will eventually move on to graze elsewhere and their involvement in British football will become normalised. Go outside for a walk, you’ll see plastic bags ensnared in trees, or random litter in the street. Irksome, yes, but does it ruin your day? Will Newcastle United being owned by Saudi Arabia ruin your enjoyment of football? Has Abu Dhabi’s backing of Manchester City during the past decade?
Criticising Newcastle United fans for their servile and obsequious displays of delight at being taken over by a business subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s government is low hanging fruit. It’s easy to criticise (mostly young and male) idiots with zero self-esteem. But, introspect for a minute, imagine this was happening to your club, just how would you react? Particularly, if you were a club similar to Newcastle, success starved for years and owned by Mike Ashley, who clearly held the fanbase in complete contempt. Desperation for liberation makes uncomfortable compromises easier, though fittingly an effective argument against the sycophancy of the Newcastle fans wasn’t utilised. Juxtapose that with the oppression of gay folk or women in Saudi Arabia, who have no room or desire to compromise, and they have far more to lose by not doing so. All Newcastle’s acquiescence to one of the most grotesque regimes on earth reveals is how little they value themselves and what their club means to them.
Speaking of selling out, the Premier League has completely. What’s worse? That it can’t see the consequences of what it’s done or that it doesn’t care?
By making decisions in secret, and in this case one that could introduce an even greater level of financial disparity to the competition, without consulting the clubs, should prove to them and us that the Premier League doesn’t serve the interest of its clubs, much less the supporters of these clubs. Then there’s the looming threat of European Super League, which, with this decision, the Premier League seems to believe is an irrelevance to the continuation of its financial dominance. UEFA has to be worried watching this. The Premier League member clubs voted against it last time, but when the Premier league itself doesn’t have their own backs, why would the clubs vote against a modified European Super League proposal that removes the exclusivity that was so egregious last time? Then there’s the abject failure of Financial Fair Play to reign in Manchester City. The calls for stringent implementation at home and abroad will grow. You wonder how much longer the Premier League’s reticence to police Financial Fair Play will hold, especially as its premise contravenes their mantras of greed is good and the richer, the better.
Abu Dhabi backed Manchester City have won the league in three of the past four seasons. If you were being generous (and I’m not with this lot), then you might posit that part of the Premier League’s motivation for ratifying the Newcastle United takeover is a recognition that they needed to introduce another state backed club in a bid to keep the league competitive. Even Chelsea, owned by an extremely wealthy individual, and the organically grown wealth of Manchester United and Liverpool, wouldn’t dare, or simply cannot, match the spending power of Manchester City. But, remind me again, who created this ruse by allowing Abu Dhabi to buy the club in the first place, or before that allowing Roman Abramovich to ‘save’ Chelsea from the ignominy of having to operate within their means.
In 1992 nobody could’ve envisioned where things have travelled to. The Sky breakaway probably seemed like a good idea at the time. English football needed significant investment and modernisation as it was still reeling from the disasters at Bradford and Hillsborough, dilapidated stadiums, hooliganism and Thatcher’s perpetual attacks on it. But the process of homogenisation – specifically taking football away from being consumed solely on the terraces – altered the nature of fandom. Decades of hype, marketing and social media has completely bastardisied it. Now the most vocal and visible elements of a club’s support are characterised by infantile squabbling and impatience, where loyalty is conditional on wins, money spent and winning transfer windows and each defeat sees grown men resort to petulant wailing, a brand of self-pitying you’d normally associate with teenagers.
Heightened expectations from these consumers have led to greater financial demands on the clubs. These have been satiated by, and have become circularly dependent on, welcoming in any and all kinds of foreign wealth, no matter how tainted, either through philanthropic ownership or commercial agreements, just to keep up with the cost of spiralling wages of players and payments to agents to remain ‘the best league in the world’.
Just how depraved and inhumane does the regime that helped accumulate wealth need to be? A holocaust, genocide, a Stalinist purge? Hey, perhaps Kim Jong-un should buy Norwich City from Delia Smith? He isn’t feeding his people anyway (just himself, it seems) and Delia was better on telly than being the owner of a football club. By allowing the Saudis to buy Newcastle United, there’s simply no reasonable legal or moral standards left to disqualify anyone. The Premier League have basically advertised that cash is king, everything has a price, anything goes and your club could be sold to anyone.
Sound familiar? In 2008 we saw what happens when things aren’t regulated properly. But too often we’re happy to remain oblivious, or offer the benefit of the doubt, just as long as the illusion of competency remains. With the mortgage derivatives scandal we now know that bankers can’t be trusted to regulate themselves, and, with the sale Newcastle United to the Saudi government, neither can the Premier League.
All I can think of is a section from The Future. Lenny was a wise cat. He’d seen the unfettered spirit of modern mankind in a number of guises. Now that I’ve seen it a few times myself, his words have lost a bit of sparkle. Nonetheless, his commentary remains pertinent: